A second-year physics class got quite a shock yesterday morning after a mild paralytic gas leaked into the classroom, leaving each student unable to move or speak. The classroom the students occupied shares a wall with a chemistry lab and hasn’t had a problem until now. New construction in the lab was unfinished, and the fourth-year students creating an experimental paralyzing gas for an extra-credit assignment failed to notice the now-permeable wall between the two rooms. “We were told the construction was done,” says Daniel Ferin, a fourth-year chemistry student who worked on the gas. “The warning signs must have been taken down prematurely.”
At 9:30 a.m., the gas began to leak into the back of the lecture hall, affecting the physics students but not Professor Herbert Heribel, who was lecturing from a raised platform. The gas was colourless and difficult to detect.
“It was really scary,” states Derik Francis, a second-year physics major who attended the class. “I couldn’t talk or move. I couldn’t even text or check Facebook. All I could do was pay attention to the lecture. It was horrifying.”
All 40 students were paralyzed by the gas. “Lucky for us, we could still breathe,” states Francis. “The professor was completely unaware of our peril.”
When asked why it went unnoticed, Heribel stated that there was no alarming difference in students’ behaviour. Heribel assumed that everyone was just very involved in the lecture. “Everyone was just sitting still and not saying anything. That’s the same as every other class, except that this time, no one was looking toward their electronic devices. I just thought they were actually enjoying my lecture.”
Only when he had finished his lecture did Heribel notice that something was wrong. No one pulled out their cellphones or fled the room when it was time to go. Leaving his platform to investigate, he noticed a chemical smell in the air. “I recognized the smell to be a hazardous chemical gas and panicked,” says Heribel. He called 911 after fleeing the room.
Soon after, paramedics equipped with gas masks arrived. They took the students out of the room and brought them back to health quickly.
“The chemicals were just a mild paralyzing gas and were quick to leave the body. Thankfully, it was not prolonged exposure,” says one paramedic. “All students came out of the incident feeling healthy and there was no harm.”
The chemistry students have not been charged, and construction has been finished in the lab with no further issues. “Luckily, that class was only 50 minutes long,” says Heribel. “Who knows what kind of damage the students could have suffered if it had been my three-hour theory class?”
This incident may have another silver lining. The gas is being inspected by UVic experts to assess whether or not it can be altered and implemented in other classrooms. According to UVic chemistry professor Linda Grey, this might be a solution to the unexplained rising problem of student disinterest in lectures.
“If we can recreate the gas so it’s even more mild, we can release it into classrooms to fight the growing attention problem during lectures,” she says. According to Grey, there’s been a large spike in student disinterest in the material presented in class in the last five years. “We aren’t sure what has been going on. We’ve always provided the most interesting subjects in the most engaging ways,” states Grey. “We go to great lengths to find the most stimulating and captivating articles and textbooks. We make sure the lecterns are polished so there is no distracting grime. We ensure professors speak in a soothing monotone. We are very unsure why this lack of interest in lectures is happening.”
If refinement of the gas is successful, Grey hopes to launch the project in fall of 2013.